I’m spending this week in Washington, DC, attending sessions of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. I’m here as a researcher on socio-environmental conflicts and a teacher; six of my students in a Human Rights of Indigenous Peoples class are here with me to see how the human rights they are learning about are claimed in practice. The Inter-American human rights system, which includes the Commission and the Inter-American Court on Human Rights, has become a critical node in the mesh of institutions that are transforming indigenous rights from a general aspiration to a formal international norm.
International law institutions are viewed by most United States citizens with well-earned skepticism. The US government has played an ironic role in helping to structure such institutions, but then refusing to acknowledge any outside legal commitment or monitoring structure as having authority over its actions. US Ambassador to the United Nations Jeane Kirkpatrick famously called social and cultural rights “a letter to Santa Claus” and Senate ratifications of major human rights treaties have included statements insisting they may not be invoked in civil litigation. Outside the superpower, however, these institutions tend to be regarded with greater respect and states dutifully send senior officials to be questioned and directed by members of the Inter-American Commission. On Friday, for example, Commissioner Macaulay insisted that a Minister from Panama not leave the room without first scheduling the next meeting with a community who brought its land claims case before the IACHR.
Both the Commission and the Court are bodies of the Organization of American States, the regional association of Western Hemisphere countries founded in 1948 in response to the Roosevelt Administration’s call for a “League of Nations of the Americas.” US leadership initially positioned the OAS as anti-communist and drove Cuba’s suspension from the organization from 1962 to 2009. The Commission began in 1959 and the Court opened in 1979. While the softer of the two institutions, the Commission has the power to impose binding “precautionary measures,” ordering states to protect vulnerable individuals or avoid taking irreversible actions. The Commission also acts as an investigative arm of the system and makes recommendations to states, and sends cases to the Court for adjudication when the states don’t comply. The Court acts as a kind of continental Supreme Court overseeing the human rights of people in twenty-four countries that have ratified the American Convention on Human Rights (those countries indicated by all colors except purple and gray in this map).
My students have been reading Richard Price’s Rainforest Warriors: Human Rights on Trial, a detailed ethnographic account of the how the Saramaka people brought their rights claims before the Inter-American Commission and Inter-American Court in a landmark case. The Court’s eventual decision in Saramaka v. Suriname concluded (1) Afro-descendant peoples in the Americas living traditionally and distinctly from national societies have the same rights as indigenous peoples; (2) Both kinds of traditional peoples have rights to property in their traditional territories, and the resources they have traditionally used; (3) projects that seize this property or threaten the physical or cultural survival of traditional peoples can only be carried forward with their free, prior, and informed consent.
Four years ago, I attended the session on the Isiboro-Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory at the Commission. You can read my report on that hearing here. More recently, in December 2016, three Sioux peoples brought the issue of the Dakota Access Pipeline to the IACHR. The hearing is archived as an online video (en and es, according the language of the speaker), just as all hearings this week are available from the Commission.